A group of kids in Coeur d’Alene found a way to make a lasting impression on their elementary school – and make some enduring friendships as well.
Last winter the fifth grade advanced reading class at Fernan STEM Academy set out to open up their play area to everyone, including students who use wheelchairs.
Their ideas grew into a $75,000 project this summer involving parents, community donors and building professionals. On track to be completed this fall, the Playground for All could serve as a model for modern play areas around the region.
“We sure have a dynamic group of kids,” Principal Bill Rutherford said. “They just sparkle in the community. … And it’s infectious, that’s for sure.”
The design includes an inviting asphalt path meandering through a stand of ponderosa pines on the 10-acre school grounds. Along the path will be several pullouts with highlights, such as a puppet theater, weather station, and marimba and drum ensemble.
A wheelchair swing will be added, as well as “buddy benches” where kids can go to make new friends. Plus, the footings are going in for two covered pavilions that will serve as outdoor classroom spaces.
Pam Kiefer’s advanced reading class embarked on a disability awareness unit last year through a grant from the Excel Foundation. The fifth-graders – a compassionate and energetic group – connected with students in the school’s Life Skills program, which provides specialized support in academics, mobility, communication, self-care and self-sufficiency for 20 to 30 kids.
The two groups of students began to spend time together during the school day.
“We were all kind of nervous the first time,” said Kyle Bridge, 11. “And then we kept doing it and we got more comfortable, and we became good friends.”
Daisy Birmingham, 11, said spending time with the students from Life Skills changed how she thought about them.
“Once I got to I know them, I realized they were just like us,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with them. A little different makes you unique.”
During recess, Kiefer’s class saw that some of their new friends were limited in where they could play. The playground next to the school is fairly accessible, but the sprawling grassy areas under a canopy of towering pines were beyond the reach of kids with limited mobility.
“There was nowhere for the kids in wheelchairs to come out here and visit the woods,” Bridge said. “They could just go in circles on the sidewalk.”
“Everyone wants to come in the field because there’s so much shade. The sun’s always beating down over there,” said Birmingham, gesturing to the exposed playground. “This part feels more outdoors than just a playground.”
Coeur d’Alene landscape architect Jon Mueller of Architects West worked with the students to help bring their concepts to life.
“The kids have just been phenomenal,” Mueller said. “They’ve really just shown tremendous leadership, but also a willingness to learn.”
He was impressed as well with how the students pitched their plans to community groups to rally support.
“They have just been great advocates for their cause, and that’s the way it should be,” he said.
The endeavor also complements Fernan’s year-old mission as a STEM academy, incorporating science, technology, engineering and math skills in the design and construction.
Mueller worked on the original playground design at Fernan when the school was built in the early 1990s. Back then, it was considered the cutting edge of accessibility.
“With the passing of 24 years, it’s a little obsolete. And there’s so many other ways you now can include everyone in a play space,” he said. “These kids have focused on that. This is just going to really broaden the use of this site and opportunities for all of the students here, not just a few.”
John Young, owner of Young Construction Group, and Chris Shelton with the company rounded up donations of materials and labor. Rick Rasmussen, CEO at Northwest Specialty Hospital, helped organize the project, too.
Coeur d’Alene Paving laid down the wide asphalt pathway a couple of weeks ago.
“It’s just so inviting it makes you want to walk it,” Kiefer said.
Susie Brott, one of the Life Skills teachers, added, “What I love is it fits perfectly. It’s like this is the way it always should have been.”
The school aims to have the inclusive new play area done by Oct. 15.
Kiefer’s students are moving on to middle school this year, but they’re proud of what they’re leaving behind at Fernan.
“We’ll never be forgotten,” Birmingham said. “I mean, we’re the kids that made this possible, that came up with the ideas. We’ve made our mark.”